Missile defense is as much of a diplomatic initiative as a military one. For the Poles, they see missile defense cooperation with the United States as a great way to build defense ties, bolster their credentials within NATO, and maybe even hedge against their traditional eastern foe, Russia.
What Poland doesn't see is itself as a target of the missile threat from Iran, the country the nascent U.S. missile shield is supposedly designed to thwart.
"If the mullahs have a target list we believe we are quite low on it," Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in an interview with Foreign Policy during his trip to Washington Thursday.
Sikorski is in town to meet with a host of officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and National Security Advisor James L. Jones. He also attended the Atlantic Council gala Wednesday night featuring Bono.
When George W. Bush's administration announced its plans to deploy missile defense interceptors in Poland, the system was advertised as needed to counter Iranian missiles headed toward the United States or Europe. The problem was, Bush's plan was designed to counter long-range missiles and actually had little chance of hitting a missile headed from Iran to Europe.
The Obama administration came in and changed the plan, replacing the interceptors with a "phased adaptive approach" that will use smaller, more mobile systems to counter short and medium-range missiles. They advertised that as better suited to protect Europe.
But Sikorski admitted that Poland's real interest in the system is to be an active player in the new emerging security infrastructure in Europe, which includes NATO's endorsement of missile defense.
"Our part of Europe has so far very few NATO installations," he said. "This is the game that seems to be the next project, so we decided to get involved."
Sikorski also commented on the botched rollout of the new missile defense plan by the Obama administration. Back in September, senior U.S. officials scrambled to brief allies after news of the plan was leaked from the European side ahead of the White House's schedule. The unfortunate result was that the plan was announced on the day of the 70th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland.
Poland didn't intend to antagonize Russia by upgrading its ties to NATO and the United States.
"We were willing to give the U.S. a chunk of our territory for this facility, but we weren't particularly looking forward to paying the price with worse relations with Russia," Sikorski said. "The Bush administration had told us, ‘We will fix it with the Russians, we will persuade them that this is no threat to them, don't worry.' And the problem appeared when the Russians appeared to be unpersuaded."
Overall, Poland is satisfied by the level of attention it receives from the Obama administration, despite the perception in some foreign capitals that the White House spends its limited foreign-policy attention span dealing more with problem countries, like Iran, than it does with allies.
"We are not in the business of vying for attention," he said. "We recognize that the U.S. has some serious problems: financial, domestic, and we feel to be fortunate not to be one of those problem areas around the world that need urgent attention."
For Sikorski's thoughts on Poland's recent tragedy and the Gordon Brown immigration controversy, read Joshua Keating's post on FP's Passport blog here.